Oct 29, 2012

A political 'evolution' on social conservative issues

Has Mitt Romney evolved?

According to the conservative Christian group Family Research Council, Romney has changed positions on five key issues between the Republican primaries and the general election. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that says candidates tack to the center during general elections, and become more moderate to appeal to independents and swing voters, Romney has apparently strengthened his case with social conservatives since winning the Republican party nomination.

Where once he was squishy, apparently, on the issues the FRC cared about, now he's firm. Where once the FRC judged the Mass. governor to be only 50 percent in line with the positions of "values voters," he now has a perfect score.

Of course it's possible it's not Romney who has changed.

As noted by Christianity Today in a piece on Christian voter guides last week, the FRC guide released during the primaries highlighted significant areas of disagreement with Romney: stem cell research, cloning, the estate tax, employee non-discrimination, and "strict constitutionalist" judges. On half the issues held to be important by the conservative group started by evangelical child-rearing guru James Dobson, Romney was represented as being on the wrong side.

That voting guide showed him to be a less desirable candidate than Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, or Rick Perry. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul didn't have perfect scores -- both differing from the FRC on the question of a federal ban on human cloning -- but they still were more in line with the group's position than Romney.

Correction: than Romney was.

According to the FRC voting guide being distributed right now as church bulletin inserts, Romney has changed his position on all five of these issues, and is now in complete agreement with the conservative Christian positions on everything that's politically important.

In at least one case, though, Romney has managed this remarkable transformation without actually changing his position. The FRC footnotes their sources for the statements about candidates' positions, and though the earlier guide and the later guide represent Romney as having different positions on stem cell research, the sources cited say the same thing in both cases. He's for stem cell research, but opposed to embryos created specifically for such studies, and opposed to federal funding of these studies.

As Romney himself explained the position in 2007, "There are different levels of stem cell research."

That nuanced position was presented by the FRC as having a "mixed" record on the issue. It is now being presented as opposing the federal funding of stem cell research, which is true, but has actually always been Romney's position. His statements on the issue, cited by the FRC, are consistent from 2005 to today. It's the FRC's representation of that position has changed.

So perhaps it's the Family Research Council that has evolved?

In another case, the records cited by the FRC show Romney has in fact changed his position, but that change happened long before either voting guide was published. Romney's current position on federal protection of gays and lesbians against employer discrimination has been represented in two diametrically opposite ways.

It's true that in 1994 Romney pledged his support for EDNA, the "Employment Non-Discrimination Act" that the FRC calls "SPECIAL EMPLOYMENT RIGHTS BASED ON SEXUAL BEHAVIOR." Romney instituted a non-discrimination policy that included sexual orientation as one of the protected classes when he was organizing the hosting of the 2002 Olympics. In 2007, though, Romney announced that he'd adjusted his position, and now felt that protecting people from discrimination was the states' job, not the federal government's. He told Tim Russert, "I think it makes sense at the state level for states to put in provision of this .... I would not support at the federal level, and I changed in that regard because I think that policy makes more sense to be evaluated or to be implemented at the state level."

During the primaries, that 2007 position was characterized by the FRC as support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act." That same position is now characterized by the FRC as opposition.

The word for this is duplicitous.

Much has been made of Romney's inconsistencies and how his only guiding principle seems to be his own desire for power. Especially when it comes to the social issues that concern conservative Christians. That, it turns out, may not be a problem for those who claim to represent these Christians, but rather a key a point of commonality.

The FRC voting guides show that Romney has strengthened his position with at least some conservative Christian groups -- but only because they too are more committed to political victories than anything else.